Review: Casshern (2004)

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Well that was a frivolous synopsis for a film that is anything but. Casshern in that form, and, indeed, from the look of the trailer, appears to be nothing more than a pretty, CGI filled actioner.

But although those elements are part and parcel of the flick, Casshern is primarily a long, bleak and bittersweet analysis of the futility of war and the eternal capacity of human beings for intolerance. No, really.

It’s a theme played out in a number of ways, one of which is through its cinematography and use of CGI to create a visually dense and narratively compelling landscape. There have been a spate of films that borrow on the same design concerns as this recently — films like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the quite nuts French film Immortel, and even, um, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Theirs is a multiple lineage and one worth noting in detail.

All clearly owe a debt to the early 20th century art movements of Futurism and German Expressionism. Casshern and its ilk display a Futurist interest in the dynamic and somewhat violent nature of the modern city, especially machinery and speed. From Expressionism they have taken an interest in extreme lighting and contrast, solid colours and a concern about the world as an alienating force.

Casshern’s director, former rock film clip maker Kazuaki Kiriya, clearly sat down and watched Expressionist films like Murnau’s Nosferatu, Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and most importantly Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Probably on repeat.

Occasionally he even seems to borrow wholesale. For instance, compare the scenes in Casshern which contrast the elegant garden of Dr Azuma, lush and shot in saturated colours, with the washed out sepia tones of the war. Lang pursued the same imagery in showing the high contrast drudging lifestyle of his workers versus that of the prettily lit Eternal Gardens of Pleasure.

The end result of this is a kind of merging of these forms with the long time Japanese love of steam punk (Kiriya’s future is 1920’s Europe with computers attached) and Gothic imagery. It is no accident that the film borrows liberally from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Sure, no end of films have taken up the When Good Science Goes Bad idea, but Kiriya’s film constantly nods to both the book and the famous original film — also influenced by Expressionism — by James Whale.

When the newly created human beings emerge from the chemical tomato soup in Dr Azuma’s laboratory, the catalyst for their accidental creation appears to be a giant mechanical thunderbolt. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the handful of survivors disappear into the icy mountain wastes, wonder why they are despised and curse humanity.

And like the monster’s weirdly Oedipal relationship with Frankenstein, the Neo-Sapiens, as they style themselves, are plagued with both paternal and maternal problems.

They are not alone.

Dr Azuma’s son despises his father. The son of the General has a number of unresolved issues with his father too. And at least two of the Neo-Sapiens also have father and familial issues not just with the good doctor — their ‘creator’ — but in their pre-human lives (to say more might reveal too much).

In contrast, some of these characters clearly love and revere their mothers. Not in an Oedipal way though.

Kiriya clearly lays the blame of most of the world’s problems squarely on the shoulders of the menfolk. The women here — Azuma’s wife and Tetsuya’s mother Midori and Tetsuya’s love interest Luna — are both clearly associated with an oft-referenced statue that is in part an angel and a winged victory. They are the ones who forgive and see past prejudice and hatred and they are the ones whose attitudes are most likely to bring the ‘victory’ of peace.

While there is much to admire there are a number of problems with Casshern. It tries to cover too much ground and ends up glossing over much of it. There are obvious attempts to deal with the relationship between the Japanese and the Chinese. Notions of who originated from whom, war crimes and ethnic cleansing are repeatedly raised throughout. Kiriya seems to be determined to tie all these themes into one package, and so the origin theme plays into the father/creator theme which plays into the generational theme which in turn influences the ongoing nature of racial and other hatreds used as the justification for war. And back again.

It’s all heady stuff, and it occasionally feels like being batted about the head with a brick. No one laughs or smiles throughout the film. It is consistently morose and dark and the characters — all playing out the Grand Theme that nobody is right or wrong — are too busy being ambiguous.

As a result the performances disappear into the relentless nature of the film’s sermonising and barrage of visuals. In a film which needs the audience onside, this all tends to be disengaging.

Nonetheless there are some wonderful moments. There is constant movement throughout the air in this film — petals, moths, dust motes, spores and scientific notes float through the air. Whenever something magical happens — and there are hints of a divine force guiding the fates of those herein — archaic and alchemical symbols flash across the screen. And every now and then the film breaks from its brutally lush visuals and goes into something else. The effect is startling — the black and red animation of the marching robots, the intellectually disabled Neo-Sapien who dreams of peace in childlike 3D animation and most beautifully, the repetition of the footage of Tetsuya’s childhood, shot in the real world, naturally lit and deliberately ‘un-framed’.

They are welcome breaks from the painstakingly precise framing (Kiriya loves centring his images) and give the film much of its emotional impact. The oddly touching cosmic note in the film’s closing moments, juxtaposed with natural shots of a wistful past and accompanied by a gentle piano all end up far better conveying the horrors and stupidity of war than much of what has previously transpired.

Casshern is a wildly ambitious debut from Kiriya. Its message might be a hackneyed one and sometimes mawkishly phrased, rather like John Lennon’s Imagine. But in these sad, sad times it presents a dream that is worth dreaming, is often beautiful and oddly moving. And the handful of action scenes are pretty sweet too.

8.5 Gigantor Robots out of 10.

About Alan

Alan is a member of an ancient Brotherhood, the keepers of a secret so devastating it could shake the world, bring down governments, topple the foundations of the Catholic faith, and make Dan Brown break out in hives.

Yup, that big.

In between running covert missions recovering ancient artifacts with his ex Navy Seal buddies and the inevitable beautiful Italian or French archaeologist/temptress who, apart from being whip smart, also always seems to be handy with a Glock semi-automatic, Alan reviews films.

This is a most excellent cover, and many directors, who most of you think are just plain directors but are in fact also members of the Brotherhood or their sister organisation The, ah, Sisterhood, send Alan secret encoded messages in said films. You might think that Cutie Honey was just a day glo bit of fun, but oh nooooo. Bought down an evil scheme or three that one.

So feel free to comment or send Alan secret encoded messages that require a trip to the Vatican to get sorted. Oh, and enjoy the reviews.

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